FAQ: Research advice for planning a trip and getting good deals to Europe

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I'd like to start a thread to help people traveling to Europe plan a reasonable trip. We have seen several proposed trips which are not feasible and rather than all of us responding to those posts, they can be directed here so they can get some guidance on how to do research for their trip. The intent of this message/thread is not to give advice on where to go, but rather, how to effectively plan and to do adequate research. I'd anticipate good websites, books, research experience, etc. would be part of this thread. Also, good advice on airfare, lodging, packing, Eurail travel passes, and any other important information on planning a trip to Europe.

This is not an all-inclusive summary as every trip is different. This is only intended to get folks started on the right foot. Don't ask FW members to do your research for you. If you want to have a great trip in Europe spend time doing your own research. You will be much better prepared for your trip and visiting the places you will go to.

The very first thing you need to do is decide how long your trip will be and then subtract two days for travel time to get there. Then decide where you want to go and then cut the list down by 80%. Americans are notorious for doing whirlwind tours and all they do is spend time on trains and buses rather than spending time visiting places. It's better to spend a lot of time in one place than a little time in lots of places. No matter where you are there are great things to do and see; don't worry about running out of things to do. At a minimum, you need to spend at least 3-6 days in major cities. You can often spend a day or so in small cities/villages, but there is nothing wrong with taking your time and traveling at a slow pace.

Below is some advice, various websites, and other places to go when researching the various aspects of your trip.

An excellent website to use is eurotrip.com. They have excellent advice on about every subject related to a trip to Europe, give city reviews, have a discussion forum, given airfare and lodging tips, etc. They also have a newsletter which is also nice for planning your trip.

If you do some thorough research, you can find affordable airfare. Be flexible in your flight destinations and you can save money. For example, if you are visiting Paris and S. Germany area, consider flying into CDG (Paris), Munich, or possibly Zurich (this might cause you to adjust your itinerary slightly though). Check all airports that are in or nearby cities you will be visiting. It may change the order of the places you will visit, but usually it doesn't matter, and who cares if you can save money?
First place to go is FAQ: How to find the best airfare deals!

Other relevant sources for investigating/purchasing airfare:
Your local newspaper often has travel agents advertising good deals.
Check into courier opportunities (do a Google search).
Check your travel guidebook. Sometimes they give good advice.

I highly recommend bed & breakfasts in Europe. They are often times cheaper, less crowded, and add to the overall European experience. Also consider hostels, but be careful and do your research. A good guidebook will help out tremendously when looking for lodging. Also, you don't need to have lodging pre-arranged when you arrive into a new city. Most cities have a travel office than can help arrange accommodations (they charge though), and lots of train stations have little phone kiosks which dial a B&B directly.

If you must have a hotel (most FW members probably don't) the first place to check is FAQ: How to find the best hotel deals!

Lodging summary:
Check your guidebook
Look for kiosks at train stations
Go to travel office at train stations and airports
For hotels, check websites listed above in airfare section.

Also, be cautious when people approach you unsolicited to stay at their place.

Getting around once you are there-
Decide how you will get around and have a plan. If it's by car first check the websites stated above. If it is by train, evaluate all the Europass/Eurailpass options. Don't buy more days than you need. For example, if you take a night train, you can travel for free for part of the next day. Rather than use another day, check the specifics of this option with your pass details. Also, consider buying point-to-point tickets versus using a day on your Eurailpass. It may be cheaper.

Eurail.com is a good site for researching train schedules, fares, departure/arrival times, routes, etc.

Public transportation is excellent in Europe. If you are going to be in a city for several days you will save money buying an all-city pass which will probably include subway, bus, and tram fares.

Taxis are also a good way to get around, although more expensive. Insist the meter is running though or you will be ripped off!

Traveling by plane may be an affordable option for covering long distances in shorter amounts of time. European discounters like ryanair (ryanair.com) have very affordable flights for intra-Europe travel. Be aware though, many airports they service are a little remote from the city center so you may need to make plans for getting into the city.

Travel guides-
Don't leave home without one! They are invaluable for so many reasons (tips on airfare, lodging, places to visit, dining, currency exchange, etc.) including saving you lots of $$$. Spend time finding a good book that will meet your travel needs (countries you will visit, time, amount you can spend, etc.), and it will help you immensely on your trip. Don't buy a book covering all of Europe if you are only traveling to a couple of countries. Some good well-known guidebooks include:
Rick Steves Series
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides

Go to Barnes and Noble, find one you like, and then come back to FW to order it from one of the sites offering Cash Back.

If you are a student or recently graduated, take you ID care with you. Numerous places will give you a discount. Some places will only accept the international Student card which you have to send away for. Your guidebook will have an advertisement to order a card.

Other misc. thoughts-
Rick Steves has great shows on PBS (which can also be purchased) on many areas of Europe. Thorough research would include getting a Rick Steves video and watching it before you leave.

Always use a money belt in Europe. Tourists make easy targets for theft. Try and avoid getting on crowded buses, subways, trams. This is where a lot of theft occurs. Gypsies have a reputation in Europe for praying on tourists. Just be careful and be on the look out. If you are cautious, you will be fine.

Many Americans tourists are loud, rude, obnoxious, disrespectful, demanding, and a down right embarrassment to this country. Be respectful of others, don't expect the same level of customer service you get here, don't complain if you can't get a 32 oz. beverage with ice in it, don't climb on stuff that you shouldn't be on, and remember, you are visiting someone else's country and they don't have to speak English! If you have adequately prepared and are courteous, kind, respectful, and try and learn something, you will have the time of your life.

Never exchange money with the money changers roaming the streets. You will be ripped off!

When available, use lockers to hoard your stuff while you are sightseeing. If you are traveling with a partner, lock your stuff together. Eagle Creek has a nice lock that has a cable that can connect backpacks together.

Other comments welcome.

Also, feel free to refer folks to this message thread who ask for advice or suggestions on a Europe trip.

Some of the formatting and links didn't come through. I will fix those.Text

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Great thread, Tap!

Here are my random bits of advice:

Invest in a good travel guidebook. I would suggest visiting the travel section of your local bookstore (you can use your library, but sometimes you just want to own a guidebook and they are relatively cheap) and see which guidebook has a format that you prefer. I like the DK Eyewitness guides as they have full color photographs and great info that provide little known insight into the area in question.

I like buying Streetwise maps too. It’s a foldable, laminated map of a city which indicates where their most prominent landmarks are. It’s easy to use and the streets are listed alphabetically and can be found by the tag (a letter and number…such as E9) that can be located on the grid map. Here’s one: http://www.Amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1886705224/ref=pd_ys_ir_all_39/103-3532023-3411810?v=glance&s=books . I always circle where I’m staying so that I can easily find my way back. lol

I don’t like to over plan either…but I do think if you take the time to cross the pond you should make an effort to visit the sights that make the city special. I couldn’t imagine visiting Paris without visiting the Eiffel. In order to organize my visit somewhat I utilize the calendar portion of Outlook. I key in my flight info (Airline name, departure times, seat number, etc.) into their respective time slots. So, if I’m leaving on May 1st at 5:00 pm, my outlook calendar will reflect that. Ditto for hotel check in time, restaurant reservations that I may have made prior, etc. If I’ve planned a tour, that goes on the calendar as well. I print all of my info a couple of days before I leave in the event that I’ve had to make changes. Of course, some of the time is set aside for wandering on my own….you MUST stop and smell the roses!

Always order visitor’s packages from the local tourist board of the city that you will be visiting.

Make copies of your passport, credit cards, atm card and keep them in the room safe or hotel safe, so if they are lost/stolen, you have the vitals. Speaking of which, I find it imperative that my room has a hotel safe & fridge! I love to shop at the local grocery store and bring back drinks and snacks to keep there….saves money and time.

Don’t exchange currency before you leave the states…you will get the worst rates this way. Instead wait until you get to your destination and use their ATMs!! Make sure your password has FOUR digits….and that the first digit is NOT a zero….they do not recognize the zero and will think you have a three digit number…which is not accepted in Europe. You will get the best rates from ATMs.

Bring an extra passport photo to Paris if you plan to buy their metro (bus & subway) pass. You will be required to affix it to the pass and it may be checked by metro police. Also, you may want to invest in a museum pass if you will be a frequent visitor to the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, etc. It allows you to bypass the usually LONG lines and go straight through the front door.

I wanted to add to Tap’s list of travel search engines: www.kayak.com, www.mobissimo.com, www.qixo.com

Itching to try Priceline, but too scared to? Well, beat them at their own game by being prepared!! http://komo4.com/stories/33835.htm, www.biddingfortravel.com, http://hotels.about.com/cs/travelerstools/a/pricelinebid.htm?terms=Priceline+rebid .

If you are a food lover, try this site for advice on restaurants around the world: http://www.chowhound.com/boards/intl/intl.html

Want to read trip reports from travelers from all over the globe? Try virtualtourist.com and igougo.com!

Here’s a cool site….now it only works for the country of France. Click on the link and you will see “photos of cities”, select the desired city. A new window will come up, type in the address and when you do, you will be able to see a picture of the street in question. You will be able to see what’s across the street, what’s down the street, etc. This will come in handy if you want to see what area your hotel is in….not to mention what condition your hotel is in!! I hate surprises…especially bad ones!! http://www.pagesjaunes.fr/pj.cgi?lang=en

Also wanted to reiterate how important it is to be on guard about your cash. Carry a money belt as previously mentioned, carry only what you will need, be wary of pickpockets….they exist, but if you travel smart, they will be of no concern to you. I would leave pocketbooks/purses at home. Too much of a headache and easily ripped off. If you have jackets with inside zippers those are preferable.

Ditto on being an ugly American……Most Europeans would appreciate you taking the effort to learn a few cursory words in their language like Hello, Goodbye, Thank You, Please, etc. It’s not difficult to learn these words and to be courteous….remember we are the VISITORS and should act accordingly.

Visit the local grocery stores to purchase picnic fixings….this will help your budget immensely.

IMO, the best time to visit Europe is in the winter where deals abound and tourists are in smaller numbers. I think a lot of people are catching on to this fact, so don’t be surprised to see full planes when you travel.

Package deals are good too. I’ve used www.go-today.com and www.nordiquetours.com with good success. It’s a good way to get air & hotel (with breakfast) at very reasonable prices….sometimes hop on/hop off bus tours and ground transportation are included. I visited Paris in 2003 and paid 1740.00 for two people…that included all four things above!!

More to come later, I’m sure!


going to europe is EXPENSIVE these days because of the recent big increases in airfare taxes. for example, i called british airways about a flight to london, was told it's only $198, not including taxes and fees. so i asked what the total price will be, and was told something ove $400!!! that's more than double! the taxes and fees cost more than the ticket itself...ridiculous!

therefore, i don't think that all the deal-hunting in the world can do any good with these new regulations.

also, the currency exchange rates are not in our favor right now.

good info & links, though. thanks to both of you.

Great points, dkong. Even though the dollar sucks right now, amazingly, it has not kept Americans home! That speaks to the determination of people who will let nothing stand in the way. Trust me, I am not rich by any means.....in fact may be considered barely making it in some circles. But I've had to change my whole way of thinking about how, when and where to spend my hard earned dollars. I brown bag my lunches, I do not go to the movies....I wait until they come out on dvd, then I rent them via my 14.99 Blockbuster membership. Whenever I go shopping I stick to a list....I will only buy something off the list if it is something that I will eventually need and is on clearance. I also ask myself DO I REALLY NEED THIS? If I am tempted to spend anyway. I faithfully pay all of my bills including mortgage and every available cent is saved in my travel account. I only buy clearanced clothing too. I paid my 2003 corolla off in 11 months when I sold my rental house....so I have no car payment either.

Gardening and traveling are my two vices....I will definitely spend my dough on those two things...but I am STILL frugal when it comes to that too!! lol I buy plants that have been marked 75% off in the late fall, I haunt target to catch their lawn/garden items off season and I try to find the lowest fares/packages as possible and I watch my spending while I'm there too. I believe where there's a will, there's a way! I anticipated that the dollar would sink further when I was in Rome last March....so I decided then to visit Prague (I'll be there next month) where they still use the Koruna (exchange rate: $1=22 Korunas!). Prague is becoming more and more popular...that is...more expensive right now. So, I'm going to enjoy it while I can! lol If things continue to worsen, then I'll stay closer to home and visit Canada and Mexico where the dollar is a little better than those currencies.

well, to me, being a frugal traveler these days means avoiding europe for the reasons i mentioned. i can see the exchange rates getting better in the future, but as for the problem of the hiked taxes and fees, i don't know when or if that will go away.

i think latin america is the way to go, at least for now.

btw, did you have to pay around $200 taxes/fees for that prague trip? and for the rome trip? i mean, do all european destinations have these ridiculous new costs tacked on?

I hear you….it did help that it was a package deal though. I used www.nordiquetravels.com for my Prague trip that I booked in October. My charges are:

2x $423/per person double occupancy (1 Room for four nights)
2x $142/per person double room $71x2 additional nights
2x $100/per person air add-on ATL (If I was departing NY…there would be no add ons…..I envy New Yorkers!)
2x $175/per person airline tax
2x $ 25/per person air ticket extension/deviation fee
2x $ 5/per person shipping/handling

$870/per person double occupancy
$1740/TOTAL (2 people)

Now, you would be hard pressed to find a deal like that on your own. This includes r/t air on Lufthansa, six nights hotel, daily breakfast. The hotel is a 12th century building that has a kitchenette in each suite. I’m not sure that I can find that type of deal if I flew to NYC! So, yes the taxes and add on fees suck…..but I look at it as the price of doing business so to speak and crossing my fingers that they will go down soon. ;-( Try not to be discouraged……..

I do think that the taxes are very high going to Europe. I paid about 2,100 in Rome for two people….we stayed in a three star hotel though at the time, which also included a daytrip to Capri, Naples and Sorrento and I used go-today.com for that trip and got about 10k ff miles too.

Here are my trip pics: www.shad0wb0xer.com/gallery

thanks for the info and pics - they're very scenic.

i guess you got good deals. i usually don't do packages, but i guess they're a good option for europe nowadays. yours seem to have saved you $$$$ all in all.

[Q] highly recommend bed & breakfasts in Europe
Completely agree... did so in GB & Ire, and was a hoot...

As to copies of Docs, also send copies to yourself on a web-email service, such as gmail or hotmail. I also keep my itinerary there as well....never know, and can usually find a internet cafe or a computer in the Policia Station<img src="i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif" border=0>

More tips: Remember that lots of Europeans do not speak very good English, so TALK REAL LOUD and make hand gestures when you want something. Wear shorts everywhere and a baseball cap, and sneakers and white socks, so people know you are American and that they are supposed to wait on you. A lot of European food is kind of funny, but they can make you a hamburger if you insist. Oh, and get drunk in public, Europeans respect that.

If you are planning to stay in pensions, how far in advance do you need to reserve a room?

I've found that the further in advance that you can book a room, the better. The rates tend to be lower that way. When and where are you planning to go? That's important because it depends on if you are going during the off season (winter)or not because rates are lower during that time of year.

I plan to go June through first week of July. I plan to stay about 2 weeks in Austria to fish with a friend then travel for 2 weeks through France, Germany and Switzerland.

Do most pensions and bed and breakfasts speak English? I only speak a little French and almost no German.

Is it expensive to use a cell phone in Europe? Do they work b/w countries? I have an unlocked triband GSM phone; do they sell prepaid SIM cards?

Also which model Eagle Creek backpack are you guys referring to?

Another valuable resource that I found was Trip Advisor. Before booking a hotel, look at the reviews for it on this site. A lot of the reviewers are good about listing noise concerns, location, etc. Things you might not get information about from looking at a review on Travelocity.

Also, I found that pretty much every hotel I looked at (in Spain, at least) was cheaper if I tried to book directly on the hotel's website, rather than on expedia, Travelocity, etc.

Lastly, if you have the Entertainment card, you can get half off of some hotels. I wasn't able to find a hotel with vacancies when I wanted (late September), but I'm assuming at some point you can..?

What is the best way to get cash in Euros? I understand that most credit cards charge a conversion fee. What about ATM debt cards? Also what do we think about Traveller's cheques?

The best way to convert dollars to euros is via an ATM....you tend to get the very best conversion rates that way. I would never use a credit card to get a cash advance. Not only do you pay the ridiculously high interest rate for doing so, but you'll have to pay for converting the dollars to euros on top of that and an atm fee if you are not using one that's in your network (I have bank of america and I was always able to find an ATM in the PLUS network...so no fees were incurred) and your bank may have a fee of some sort too (mine didn't). So...DON'T DO IT!!

ATM is the easiest and most convenient way to go. I've also heard that some shops won't take traveler's checks...so why bother with it?

I wanted to add that you may want to inform your bank that you will be out of the country and where so that they won't deny a transaction thinking that someone has accessed your account somehow overseas. Also...make sure that your pin number is four digits...they don't recognize three digits...they will assume that if you key your pin number as 123 that you meant 123X and the transaction won't be completed. I've also heard that the pin number can't begin with zero...so if your pin is 0123, it will be read as 123...which means.....

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